Yes, it’s possible, says Australian AI researcher Hugo de Garis, that robots may never have a chance to seize the controls of spaceship Earth. We may all end up killing each other first, as we argue how best to adapt to this daunting new dimension.

De Garis is an intelligent man. His studies in “evolvable hardware” are focused on emulating the neural transmissions of the human mind in robots. As director of the China-Brain Project at Xiamen University, he’s literally overseeing the creation of a robot brain.

And it won’t be long before these artificial brains could vastly surpass human intelligence. “Once neuroscience tells us how neuro microcircuits function in the brain, we can put those ideas into the artificial brains people like me are starting to build,” says de Garis, who predicts that, by the 2020s, nanotech will have developed sufficiently to give neuroscientists a whole slew of tiny new tools. By 2030 or so, “a huge industry rises selling genuinely smart, useful household robots.” As that happens, he predicts, by 2040 “the IQ gap between human and robot decreases.”

That’s when the trouble starts. In his book The Artilect War: Cosmists vs. Terrans: A Bitter Controversy Concerning Whether Humanity Should Build Godlike Massively Intelligent Machines (2005), de Garis envisions a planet split between two factions. “Cosmists” are in favor of the creation of such surpassingly smart robotic artificial intellects (“artilect,” of course, being a portmanteau of those words). “Terrans” are opposed to it.

It won’t end well. “The Terrans will be horrified” at these astonishing advances, he says, and “the Cosmists will be gripped by a religious awe of building artilect gods.” In the advanced-weapon war between Cosmists and Terrans that de Garis sketches out, “billions, not millions, will die. Utterly depressing.”

Such a “gigadeath” scenario is clearly not something to look forward to. “How to prevent it? I wish I knew,” says de Garis. “I’m so pessimistic about it. I’m glad to be alive right now. I will die peacefully in my bed, but my grandkids will perish” either at the hands of Terrans, “who will argue it’s better to kill a few million Cosmists before the artilects or cyborgs are too smart,” or at the hands of “hugely superior” artilects who “might get rid of us for whatever reason.”

Yes, he concedes, “it sounds like science fiction today.” (That’s putting it mildly.) But de Garis insists that, with technology increasing at warp speed, it’s not as far-fetched as it seems. He cites Leó Szilárd, who conceived of the nuclear chain reaction in 1933. “They thought he was nuts. One bomb? Destroy a whole city? Get outta here,” he says. “A mere 12 years later: Hiroshima.”

Indeed, in the excellent AI documentary Building Gods, de Garis likens “brain builders” such as himself to this past century’s nuclear physicists — profoundly ambivalent about the simultaneously awe-inspiring and terrifying implications of their technological know-how: “Do I want to be a part of this? Shouldn’t my consciousness be saying, ‘I’m a stepping stone to this massive horror?’ Shouldn’t I stop now?”

A matter of intelligence
In the foreword to The Artilect War, Kevin Warwick, a professor of cybernetics at the UK’s University of Reading, writes that he and de Garis share the common view that, “later this century, humanity will have to confront the prospect of being replaced by a new dominant species, namely ultra-intelligent robots controlled by ultra-intelligent artificial brains.”

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